Henman makes a little history
PARIS -- If, just across the Channel, Tim Henman rallied from two sets down to vault into the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, the roar from the British crowd would be deafening both in the stands and on Henman Hill. On Saturday, all you could hear on Court Suzanne Lenglen as Henman unstrung Frenchman Michael Llodra was the sound of stifling silence.
Henman has made his name playing at home, reaching the semifinals four times at the All-England Club. Seven times in 10 Wimbledon appearances, he's reached at least the quarterfinals. The number in the other three Grand Slams? Henman, three months short of his 30th birthday, was a miserable 0-for-25.
With emphasis on the word was.
Henman, with a fairly heroic 6-7 (2), 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 9-7 victory over Llodra, has now reached the quarterfinals of the French Open. Roger Taylor was the last British man to pass this way, some 31 years ago, about 15 months before Henman was born. Henman, thus, went his maternal grandfather one better. Timothy Henry Billington, for whom Henman is named, made it to the fourth round here in 1939.
It was Henman's second two-sets-to-love escape in four matches -- something he'd never done once in 110 Grand Slam matches before the tournament began.
Afterward, Henman chose to dwell on the two-set deficit.
"I think for one hour and 49 minutes, I'm playing the wrong way," Henman said. "That's not a great sign, but to come through a match like that and find a way to win, it kind of is character-building, that's for sure."
He is a stranger in a strange land, an anachronistic serve-and-volley player among the baseline wizards of the red dirt. It was seven years ago that the last pure serve-and-volleyer, the estimable Aussie Patrick Rafter, now retired and recently married, got this far at Roland Garros. It just doesn't happen very often. And on this day, there were two on the same court.
"I think our styles, the two of us, is pretty rare, certainly on clay," Henman observed. "They've probably seen more volleys in that match than they've seen on the rest of the tournament."
If you didn't know better, you would have thought Henman and Llodra, another serve-and-volleyer, were playing on grass -- just like they did in the second round of last year's Wimbedon. Henman handled Llodra in straight sets. But playing on clay, in front of a rabid French crowd, Henman was very nearly taken out in straight sets himself. Llodra, a serviceable left-handed doubles player, is ranked 85 spots lower than Henman's No. 9 on the ATP tennis ladder, but he was inspired by the stage.
In the first round, against Cyril Saulnier, Henman had fallen behind by two sets and rallied by winning the last three. The momentum continued through two more matches, against Lars Burgsmuller and Galo Blanco, the kind of players who have sent Henman home here before. When Llodra ran off to a two-set lead, Henman said he didn't panic.
Oddly enough, he drew strength from his third-round match at the Australian Open -- a match he lost to Guillermo Canas after leading two sets to love.
"It was a bitter pill to swallow," Henman said. "I just wanted to keep fighting as hard as I could try and come away with a win. You know, that's what I did."
Gradually, Henman worked himself back into the match. The fifth set was a dead heat. Serving to level the score at 5-all, Llodra found himself with a match point. Standing menacingly at net, he had a great look at Henman's oh-so-cool forehand passing shot. Henman broke Llodra at 7-all with 1) a backhand winner, 2) a sneaky second serve that Llodra couldn't control, 3) a backhand that hit the net cord and eluded Llodra entirely and, finally, 4) a sweet forehand passing shot that appeared to clip the baseline tape.
Sting, who watched patiently for the entire 4 hours and 10 minutes, was exceedingly happy for his homeboy.
So is Henman an overachiever at Wimbledon or an underachiever at the rest of the Grand Slams? Saturday was the first evidence that it might be the latter.
How will all of this play in England?
"It's the first time in 31 years, isn't it?" said John Roberts of The Independent. "For him, it's a big, big deal. The fans, they're all sort of obsessed with Wimbledon, but it's big because Tim's proved something on an alien surface."
Of course, Henman's unprecedented success has those pessimists across the Channel a little concerned. There are widespread fears that the French Open is compromising Henman's grass-court preparation for Wimbledon, which begins in three weeks.
"No, no, no," Henman said. "You can never complain about winning. We're talking about a Grand Slam here."
For nine years now, Henman has declined to book his hotel for the entire fortnight.
"Normally, you make sure that you're booking in for a good period of time," he said after his second-round match. "I spent plenty of weekends in Paris, i.e., the weekend before, but not the middle weekend.
"I'm happy to stay as long as I can here, as long as my hotel will have me."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.